Then drowned in desire, our souls on fire
I lead the way to the funeral pyre
And without a thought of the consequence
I gave in to my decadence
One slip and down the hole we fall
It seems to take no time at all
A momentary lapse of reason
That binds a life for life
A small regret, you won’t forget,
There’ll be no sleep in here tonight
Was it love, or was it the idea of being in love?
~ One Slip (Pink Floyd)
Some of the softest furs had been roughly transformed into a style of leggings Jean had only seen on Native Americans in history books. The top of the garment felt like a leather garter belt, and would have left a lot exposed if she didn’t have the fur skirt to cover up with. Her new long-sleeve top was laced up the front.
Being swaddled in deer fur from neck to boots gave her the appearance of a slender Sasquatch, but having discovered one of the uses for the odd leggings, she didn’t complain.
The cave she had started calling the bedroom was still warm, although the fire in the living room was dying down. From her supine position, she could see the edge of the collection of sticks they’d found by wishing for them outside. Yet with Logan attentively working her into a limp and panting thing, she couldn’t care about things like keeping the fire lit.
Her fingers combed through his wild hair below her bunched skirt as his tongue destroyed her ability to think. Moving her hands to the taut muscles of his arms, she stroked them as they gently hauled her legs farther apart.
The word ravaged drifted through her thoughts as he rose, shifted his weight and entered her again. Memories of her teen years, when she had giggled over words like that in books, made her smile. Logan fulfilled all of the old promises of the books in ways Scott would have been reluctant to try.
When he collapsed on her, spent, she loved the feel of his weight pressing her down. She felt exhausted, too, though her brain still swam with lust.
“For a man with no idea how old he could be, you have the stamina of a few twenty-somethings combined,” she whispered in his ear. “Not that I speak from experience.”
Logan’s chuckle sounded in the dark. “My mutant attributes are handy.” He moved away from her on the elk fur and sat up. “We’ve let tha fire die down.”
“It’s still warm, leave it a while.” Her hand stroked down his back.
“Voracious is a good look fer ya, Jeannie but if tha fire goes, it can get dangerously cold quick, ‘specially since tha degrees did a nose dive. Can’t save tha day t’morrow if we’re frozen solid in our sleep.”
“You think I’m going to let you sleep?”
“Yer tha one who dozed off last night, not me.” If he gave her one of his trademark smirks, she couldn’t see it, but the humor was plain in his thoughts.
She listened as he got up and went out to tend their fire. His silhouette flared up against the tunnel wall when the flames lit the outer cavern again. Returning to her, he sat and handed her a piece of venison jerky.
“No, thanks,” she said, sitting up to lay her head on his shoulder. When he began to eat it himself, she smiled. “Keeping your strength up?”
“Protein feeds tha healin’ factor. Can’t let ya wear me out; my reputation’s at stake.”
“Are we still going to try to herd our neighbors into the lower caverns tomorrow?”
“Best thing. If they’ll come outta it like Andy, they may know somethin’ worthwhile. A piece o’ tha puzzle Waldo ain’t got, anyway.”
“Reece,” Jean corrected, amused at his habit of giving satirical nicknames to people that irritated him.
When he finished the meat, she turned him and gently pushed him down into the thick elk fur. His fingers undid the rawhide lacing of her top and freed her breasts, the nipples hardening instantly in the open air. Warm hands in the dark cupped them, making her sigh with longing. Lowering herself over him, she melted into the sensations of his hot mouth on her chilled body.
~ ~ ~
Her boots crunched through the snow in an otherwise silent world. Logan waited at the cavern mouth, watching over her while keeping out of her way.
The snowy plain extended to the horizon in all directions and her scans picked up nothing, even though Logan had said he could scent bear-dogs on the light breeze.
Reece had told her that the monsters tended to dig themselves down into the snow at night for warmth, but they could do so to spring on prey, too. For that threat and to avoid worsening her own mental condition, she didn’t venture far.
You’re out here and you know we know it. Logan even caught your scent and labeled you female. We aren’t against you – but we will find out how to escape this place and how to stop you from harming others. Why not show yourself? If you’ve been hurt, if you need help…
A stronger wind picked up around her. For a moment, she thought she heard a voice in it – no words, but sounds – like a moan or cry. Tightening her scans, her mind sought the source but failed to detect anything. The wind died as quickly as it had started and no sentient thoughts remained. Discouraged, she turned back.
Rejoining Logan, she leaned against him with her eyes closed and felt his arms hold her gently.
“Hook bein’ shy?”
Jean nodded. “I almost had her.” Pulling back to look at him, she touched his face. “Why don’t you tackle the herding and I’ll keep trying. I can’t track them effectively, anyway. When you bring them in, I’ll help you take them down to Reece.”
“Not all o’ ‘em went huntin’ – watch yer back.”
He kissed her and she responded warmly. She perched on her rock outcropping and watched him as he followed a trail that the wind had already destroyed beyond her ability to detect it.
The cold was intense, numbing body and mind. Tucking her skirt around her, she wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her chin on one of them, closing her eyes once more. Her telepathy ranged out, seeking human thoughts.
Again, the vague hint of a sentient watcher found her and toyed with her. As if playing hide and seek, it sought to lure her up and out into the snow. Resisting the pull of temptation, she tried to make her opponent communicate.
Shivering, lost in concentration, Jean ceased to listen to anything but the moaning echo in the breeze.
She woke with a start moments later, horrified that she had been lulled into sleep. Are you doing that? she asked the entity Logan had named Hook.
A growl behind her made her turn sharply, hoping to see her feral friend. Out of the hypnotizing white of the landscape, a long shaft swung into her line of sight. Before her telekinesis could strike, a blow fell on the side of her head and turned the world black.
~ ~ ~
Jean kept her eyes closed when she first regained consciousness, a trick she’d learned from Logan years ago. Listening to her surroundings first, she carefully tried to assess by means other than sight precisely what her predicament might be.
The memory of the lesson drifted through her mind. I asked him what the first step was, and he said: ‘Wakin’ up at all – without that, tha rest ain’t much help.’ Okay, step one accomplished. Now what?
Soft sounds could be heard, but they weren’t too close. Her palms pressed down flat on either side of her body as she sniffed the air.
Fur over stone, so I’m in the caves. Any chance Logan’s already found and rescued me? Another stroke of the fur ended that hope. This is too long and soft to be our elk – it’s the bear-dog pelt. Wrinkling her nose, she frowned. They stripped it off and laid it flesh-side-down, without curing it. So, odds being what they are, I’m in enemy territory.
The only one who hadn’t gone hunting was the big leader of the cavemen. If he had knocked her out and brought her to his den, it couldn’t be for a good reason.
How stereotypical can we get? I hope he didn’t drag me here by my hair. Warily, she opened her eyes, but it was a useless gesture; the cavern was pitch dark. Great. When Tarzan gets his mind back, he’s going to laugh his ass off at Jane, who took a nap and got claimed by the opposition. Unless… She drew her breath in sharply. If Logan finds out before he has his mind back, he’ll kill his rival outright, won’t he? She struggled to rise with her hand up to protect her head. I’ve got to get out of here before he figures out what happened. I can’t let him kill this idiot, personal offense aside.
Her movement alerted her captor, but he would be easy to handle. Discovery of a name or real identity in a mind so overtaken by primitive drives might take time and finely tuned skill – but punching through those drives to reach the brain’s control centers was quick and easy, made even simpler by her new disregard for the feelings and privacy of others.
Tagging him with her telepathy, she broke through the resistant static of his thoughts and forced him to move back out of her way.
Going by feel and the caveman leader’s knowledge of his den and the path up and out of it, she moved quickly, allowing him to follow her. As soon as she could set a compulsion in his mind to sit and wait for the others, she could just add him to the herd when Logan brought them in.
Getting him under her control might have been simple, but keeping him under control was a slippery business; the animal mind was hard to get a lock on. It was easier than dealing with Logan’s inner beast, whether he was feral or not, but not by much. When she snagged the man, she realized the compulsion would have to be monitored closely, or it could slip.
She didn’t notice that she’d been holding her breath until a gleam of sunlight appeared higher up in the tunnel. The newly enthralled man behind her tagged along placidly, though in his mind, he fought against her control instinctively.
Be glad you’re dealing with Jane, mister. Tarzan would eat your lunch. Smiling, she gave him another mental prod as they neared the open air. Unk, Bwana, let’s get a move on.
Entering Broadway, she saw that Logan had already brought in part of his quarry. On the opposite side of the massive cavern, Andy and the other caveman were huddled together.
Where is the woman – and why do they look terrified?
Abruptly, she felt the stare. Turning to the cave entrance, she startled, a thrill of unreasoning fear making her tense. The creature that crouched there, claws out and ready to spring, was covered in blood. With his healing factor intact, she didn’t need to fear that he was hurt, but meeting that stare chilled her soul. The beast that stared balefully back at her was Logan in body only.
The crystal blue of his eyes, normally full of the experience of his unknown age, were reduced to blank slits of brutal menace. The fanged snarl and horrific growls made the fine hairs on her body stand up.
It was worse than the feral regression had ever been and the focus of the beast was on the man who stood behind her, a being with no chance of defending himself against the Wolverine.
Jean didn’t realize her control on her short-term captor had faltered until she heard him make his childish human growl in response to his rival.
Wolverine roared a deafening challenge that echoed around them and spiraled down into the tunnels. The other men fell on their faces instantly, looking away from both of them, submissive and whimpering.
Desperate to end the confrontation, she slapped her mental compulsion back on the man, rendering him immobile. Taking a deep breath, she tried to prepare herself to stop the mutant bullet-train, hoping he would still recognize her as his mate if she failed to control him.
Wolverine jumped, not around her, but over her head. She slammed the caveman’s brain with a command that dropped him to the floor of the cavern on his belly. It was intended to get him out of harm’s way, though it left her in the rabid mutant’s path.
Jean abandoned her attempt to slice through his mind and grabbed him in a panic with her telekinesis. The raging roar was strangled in a sharp snarl of fear as he was caught and held in the air, unable to move a second later.
She had fallen to one knee to catch him and avoid the claws at once. Her hands held up, she felt the greater of her mutant powers strain against his strength, but it held him.
Lowering him slowly, she set him down on the stone floor. Her breath coming fast, she gambled on letting him go.
I can’t let you fear my power to the point of attacking me for using it against you, she told him, hoping the thought might reach even the feral mind with some impression of her non-threatening intent. So here goes, but if you try to hurt these people, I will stop you.
She crouched and then sat in front of the big caveman as she carefully released her friend from the pressure of her power.
He shook his head like a dog and growled. Immediately, he started toward his rival, but struck an invisible wall. With a snarl, he tried to bite at it, but couldn’t press through it.
The feral eyes gleamed as the frustrated beast growled his displeasure. Yet his glare was on the rival – did he make the connection that the force that wouldn’t allow him to reach him originated from his mate?
Jean reached out to the other two cavemen as well, and held them all with her telepathy, keeping them down, prone, and non-aggressive.
To her surprise, Wolverine stopped trying to get at their leader and his rage seemed to leak away. Approaching her in a doglike crouch on hands and feet, he sniffed at the hand she held out to him. When he came closer, she stroked his sideburns as she had before and felt him lean into the touch.
What did you say about speaking Wendy’s new language? Jean thought of dogs and wolves, and then she remembered how the mutant Wolfsbane had once greeted Logan when she’d been in her wolf form. Sighing, she smiled. If Storm could see me now… Moving slowly, she turned her head and licked his rough jaw.
The change in his body language and the release of tension and rage she felt from his animal mind was almost instantaneous. A moment later, he nuzzled her neck and shoulder.
When she could breathe evenly, she relaxed a little, but kept her hold on the others. If he approached them, she was prepared to shield them again.
Yet Wolverine seemed convinced that she was still his and the prone silence of the others didn’t provoke him. He moved a distance away from them all, still crouched like an animal, and watched the white snow outside, unblinking in the glare of the sun.
She finally had the opportunity to study him and noticed that the blood on his body and loincloth was a wet pattern of sprays and smears.
From fighting bear-dogs? I hope that’s not the blood of the woman we’re missing. Either way, did they hurt her? Or… Shaking her head, she frowned. You wouldn’t kill a defenseless female, even this far gone. So where is she?
When Wolverine turned back to her after a few moments of sniffing the air, he tried to sniff at the cavemen, too, but Jean threw her TK shield up between them, afraid that he could strike faster than she could react.
He crouched and growled at them for a while, but then seemed to accept that he couldn’t reach them. He settled abruptly beside her, lay down on his side and closed his eyes.
She watched his side heave, noticing for the first time that he was tired – maybe close to worn out.
Not a mark to show for a fight, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t tear you up before you got them. Still, you brought me Andy and his friend, maybe against stiff odds? Thinking of the woman, she swallowed hard. I guess I’ll hear about it when you go away and I get Logan back.
~ ~ ~
Without the depths of the caverns lessening his exposure to Hook’s influence, it was a while before Logan’s healing factor brought his mind back to her. When he first twitched and rose, she wasn’t sure he was sane again, until he spoke.
“Need a cigar an’ a good single malt after that,” the gruff voice said. He sat up and faced her. “What’d I miss?”
Jean tried to keep her story short and to the point, attempting to gloss over why she had appeared from below with the caveman behind her. She should have known it wouldn’t work. Feral or not, his heightened senses missed nothing.
“So ya got ‘is scent on ya in all tha spots he touched t’ carry ya downstairs –”
“Okay, okay,” she interrupted. “I was scanning for Hook and he bamboozled me, whacked me with a bone and carted me off. Satisfied?”
“Hardly,” he replied, but a smirk was tugging at his lips. “I almost nailed tha bastard, though. What part o’ ‘watch yer back’ did ya miss?”
“The part where I could swear Hook was trying to lull me to sleep.” Her irritation at his teasing made the words sharp.
Logan rose and walked to the entrance, staring out over the snow. “Easy, Jeannie – no harm done.” Scenting the air once, he added, “At least ya proved ya can stop me.”
“Where is the woman? Did something…” She hesitated, and then met his eyes when he turned and asked again. “Did something happen to her? Out there?”
“It’s still hazy – but I don’t think I found ‘er at all. I remember tha tracks an’ that they seemed t’ have separated, but maybe she wasn’t with ‘em t’ begin with. Maybe they weren’t huntin’ meat, neither. These two,” he gestured to Andy and the other man, “mighta been lookin’ fer ‘er.”
“Why would she go off and risk her life alone?”
Logan shrugged. “Maybe she recovered ‘nuff t’ remember ‘erself an’ wanted tha hell away from grunt boy over there. Not that he didn’t try t’ replace ‘er damn quick.”
“Or Hook might have lured her out? She was trying to get me out there, I’m sure of it.”
“Coulda been, I guess.”
“Well, we’ve lost the morning now; if you’ve taught me anything about reading time by the sun, it’s around noon. Andy and Reece seem to think that midnight and midday are the worst times to try and leave this place.” Sighing, she added, “I hope that woman is still alive out there.”
“Can’t be helped. Ya were sleepin’ off yer kidnappin’ an’ I was busy pickin’ fights t’ keep those two from bein’ lunch.” Looking down at himself, Logan snorted. “Need ‘nother trip t’ tha bathhouse – but first, I gotta idea.”
“Is that bear-dog blood, then?”
“Yeah. If we want more o’ their skins, they’re out there fer tha takin’, but I’d rather keep my brains fer now.”
He had started toward Andy and knelt down beside him. When he rolled him to his back, the former park ranger cringed and offered his throat with a whimper.
“What are you doing?”
“Solvin’ tha ‘who’s boss’ question, once an’ fer all. Oughta prevent future mate theft, too. Sit tight, Jeannie, I won’t hurt ‘em.”
She frowned in distaste as she watched him take Andy’s throat in his teeth. “I put a stop to that just fine, thanks.”
Logan repeated the process with the other man and then moved over to the big one who had tried to take her. “Yeah, an’ then traipsed ‘im in front o’ my inner beast with ‘is smell on ya. Teachin’ ‘im which lines not t’ cross heads that shit off at tha pass.”
Jean couldn’t help wincing when he closed his mouth on the other man’s throat, though the bestial act didn’t repulse her as it once might have. It made her realize how she might be changing in this place and the thought of it made her shudder.
The noon sun lanced down at an angle into the mouth of Mammoth Cave, but it had no warmth to give. Another shiver ran through her as she watched Logan return to her. The others remained huddled, afraid of their new boss.
“Fast thinkin’, though, makin’ ‘im drop an’ cower,” he offered.
“I got him down to get him out of the way of your claws.”
Logan looked up at her, alerted by her casual tone. Is she gettin’ used t’ all tha parts o’ me she didn’t wanna see before? Maybe tha Boy Scout should watch out after all. Tha grittier Jean gets, tha more she seems t’ have a taste fer tha ol’ Canucklehead – without whitewashin’ me, neither. Other times, she starts t’ smell like tha guilt-ridden Jean, too. Which one’ll win? Anyone’s guess, bub. Place yer bets. “Still,” he answered her, “it translated in beast-speak t’ submission – makes tha critter relax faster.” Something in her face made him cock his head at her. “What is it?”
Jean shook her head. “Nothing, I’m just glad it worked, and I – did that to. Not the throat thing, but I – I licked your jaw.”
“How’d ya know ‘bout that?”
“I saw Wolfsbane do it once.”
“She’s a pup, like Wendy. That’s acknowledgin’ leadership t’ an elder. Fer these boys, it’s losin’ a challenge. Yer neither.” He thought about it, but only vague memories of the incident came through. Shrugging, he added, “Well, maybe ya usin’ yer TK t’ keep me off ‘em was seen as a challenge o’ sorts. Better safe than sorry, huh?” He rose to his feet again and faced her.
“When you’re feral, you can sense that the power comes from me?”
“Yup. Tha beastie can feel it in tha air an’ knows yer tha source. Tha first time, he thought it might be attackin’ ya, but not fer long.”
“Oh. Well, then, yes – better safe than sorry.”
Logan sighed and held her arms gently. “Don’t worry, Jeannie – I won’t hurt ya. Tha man in me might be trespassin’, but tha animal side thinks yer ‘is. He won’t attack ‘is mate.”
“What about in the dream? I was inside your hunting dream. It was so real and you were chasing me like a rabbit. Your claws cut my hair.”
“Deer,” he replied, “an’ once I knew ya were there, tha rules changed.” He stepped up closer to her until their bodies touched. “Didn’t they?” When he pulled her into a kiss, her fear seemed to intensify her response. She knows she’s gettin’ wilder, though she’s not sure she likes it yet – but tha further she comes over t’ my way o’ thinkin’, tha more tha beast in me attracts ‘er. He broke off the kiss before they ended up consummating his new theory in front of the neighbors. “Let’s get these guys down t’ Reece, then I’ll go topside again an’ hunt fer tha woman. My bath can wait.”
“No – I’ll herd them down. Every minute counts out there and we’ve lingered long enough on pack politics.”
“Ya sure ya can hold ‘em all?”
“Yes, when I’m awake,” she answered.
Logan smiled and chucked her playfully under her chin. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, Red. Learnin’ tha wilderness survival game takes time – but it oughta be easier now that they know I’m tha ‘leader o’ tha pack’.”
“If I get stuck on that stupid song later, I’m going to hurt you.”
Laughing, he headed back outside. “Then I’m safer out here. See ya later, Jeannie.”
“Don’t go too far,” she answered, worry for him obvious in her voice.
“Ya sure?” He turned and winked at her. “Tha place still might turn out t’ be Bowlin’ Green if ya go far ‘nuff. It’s only thirty miles in tha real world.”
“If it is, bring me a Big Mac. Or anything not fresh off the hoof.”
It was good to see her smile. “Ya got it.”
~ ~ ~
The hunt continued. The others stalked doggedly after him, but kept their distance now. Their yapping and howling grew more agitated as he continued to follow the female’s trail.
When the wind shifted, a faint scent of blood could be detected on it. Growling, he turned to seek out the source of it.
The enemies grew bolder around him when he found his quarry. Between one snow drift and another, the female had been partially buried in the snow like a cache of meat. She was wounded and deeply asleep. Sheathing his claws, he began to dig her out.
Over one shoulder, he noted the largest of the brindle males as it ran near, snarling. He ignored it until it loped closer and began to charge him.
A flash of his claws opened his enemy’s shoulder and the howl of pain frightened its pack mates, driving them back. Yet the brindle wasn’t giving up and he had to return the injured female to the den.
Roaring to deter the others, he sheathed his claws and crouched to meet their leader. When it leapt on him, the claws extended through the brindle’s chest and dropped it, twitching and whining, into the snow.
Claws dripping, he straightened and looked back toward the distant mountain den.
~ ~ ~
Logan returned to himself in Reece’s phosphorous cave. He had already placed the others around him by scent before opening his eyes. Nearest to him were Jean and Reece. They were bent over the woman he’d taken away from the bear-dogs. Beyond them, the trio of cavemen seemed to be in various stages of remembering who they were, with Andy in the lead and their former leader coming in last.
The next thing he noticed was that the dried blood he’d worn earlier had been added to. His question broke the silence and made them all jump. “How’s she doin’?”
“Not good,” Jean replied without looking away from their patient. “Those creatures tore her up?”
“I’d say yes goin’ by smell an’ sight.” Logan thought about the oddity that had bothered him since the memory of finding the woman had started to clear. “There was somethin’ odd in their behavior, though. They had ‘er half hid, like stashed meat from a fresh kill fer later – but they didn’t sample their prey at all, just sliced ‘er up with claws.”
“Thankfully,” Jean responded. “Why is it unusual?”
“Animals like that wouldn’t bring down prey they didn’t intend t’ eat. Other reasons fer killin’ – territory, challenge – not really an issue in ‘er case.” Logan looked at Reece who was watching him intently. “Ya said they’ve been killin’ mutants an’ males that carry tha genes fer mutation. She’s neither. If they saw ‘er as prey, they wouldn’t take ‘er as a challenger or a trespasser, but they didn’t take a nibble. They had ‘er immobile an’ saved fer later fer somethin’ else.”
Reece nodded and looked away, busying himself with first aid again. He stitched the deeper gashes with gut thread from his tanning enterprise. The cavemen watched them all, mute and afraid.
Jean met Logan’s gaze. “I’m not convinced they are animals. They can’t be scanned and I can detect the mental signatures of mammals well enough to know that they’re there. Sometimes, when I know nothing’s out there, you’ve told me you smell them, even see them.” She glanced down at Reece as he stitched. “They appear to be quite real while we’re trapped here, but there’s some other explanation for them; there has to be.” She paused, and then added, “Reece believes our secretive telepath is making them, that they, and this reality, are manifested by her, to control anyone she catches in her net. It would explain your elk and antelope, and our firewood. She’s taking images from our minds and making them real.”
Logan’s eyes narrowed. “Like Proteus without tha nauseatin’ twisted visions?”
“Something like that, but he altered our perceptions of the normal reality. Here, we’re being given a new sort of world, one ‘normal’ enough to believe without question for most.”
“Sure, if yer brains are set back t’ one million BC. Anybody who landed in this valley by modern means knows they ain’t in Kentucky anymore. Tha meat’s real – we’ve all been eatin’ it – but tha elk were odd, too … grazin’ on snow fer one.” Eyeing Jean thoughtfully, he added, “Don’t bet on telepathy always pickin’ up an animal’s mind, neither. Critters can be slippery li’l bastards when they need t’ be.”
She looked like she wanted to argue the point, but then shook her head slightly and turned her attention back to their patient.
Reece finished stitching and studied his efforts. “That’s the best we can do here. I’ll watch over her.” He stood and faced them. “Perhaps most of the animals are a sort of hallucination and the ones we interact with are made fully real individually.”
Logan frowned. “It’s a hallucination that has smells, makes sounds, an’ leaves tracks.” An abrupt thought made his expression darken. “I remember, tha first time I came back t’ ya feral, Red – I passed my own tracks in tha snow but when I went out there that first time, there wasn’t any snow.”
“Well, let’s save some mystery for later,” Jean said. “I need a nap and you need a bath.” She headed for the tunnel, but turned back to speak to Reece again. “I want to talk to the rest of them when they’re human again.”
“I’d give them another few hours,” he replied. “The woman may not be awake.”
“I’ll be back. I may be able to help with her, too.”
~ ~ ~
Logan walked with Jean back to their den, grabbed his cigar case, and then veered off to Gorin’s Dome. After an invigorating bath in the freezing water, he headed up to the entrance cavern before rejoining Jean.
Two stogies, two matches – she’s disapprovin’, but merciful. He lit one of the cigars and tucked the case in the top of his loincloth.
Out in the white glare of sun on snow, the bear-dogs were more active than ever before. There were more of them, too. From distant gray and black figures, to the animals that padded closer to the caverns, they were all in an agitated state – snuffling and growling through the snow.
Logan watched them as the cigar burned down, mulling over what they were and what they couldn’t be.
A familiar scent struck his nose and turned him sharply in time to see a huge brindle male stalk around the corner of the rocks. It sniffed right up to the edge of the snow, saw him, and crouched, snarling.
I’ll be damned – that’s tha same brute I skewered earlier. “Ya gotta twin?” he asked it. “Nope, yer tha one – tha nose don’t lie, bub.” Logan took an aggressive stance and with a ~snikt~, popped all six of his claws. “Why won’t ya enter tha caves, ya ugly shit? Do they spook ya, or ain’t ya allowed?”
Its body language told him it was desperate to get at him, but it wouldn’t enter the cave to do so. Taking the stub of his cigar out of his teeth, he tossed it at it – smirking when its rows of needle teeth snapped it into slices.
“I could bring tha fight t’ ya, just t’ prove I can keep ya dead this time, but let’s play without gettin’ yer blood all over me – already had my bath. Ya mind me takin’ unfair advantage? No? ‘Preciate it.”
He advanced no more than eight feet away from the cavern, intending to retreat if Hook tried to push him over the redline into feral. As he had assumed, the bear-dog instantly prepared to spring.
“Ya don’t learn from past experience, huh? Fine by me.” His claws retracted with a loud ~snakt~. Moving a fist to the center of his chest, Logan crouched and waited for his opponent to jump him.
It came fast when it leapt, fast and powerful – but Logan had fought better foes for longer than he could remember. It was a simple matter of popping one claw and using the animal’s own weight and momentum to stab through its heart as it came down over him. With a twist of his body, he turned its trajectory, forcing it to fall at his side. He stabbed his claw in a little farther for good measure before retracting it.
Satisfied, he waited for it to stop twitching before he hauled it inside the cavern to skin it.
~ ~ ~
“Where did that come from?” Jean asked.
Logan dumped the fur near the fire before nestling the bear-dog’s shorn skull at the edge of the hot coals to ready the brains for tanning. “A housewarmin’ present from tha bear-dog I killed this mornin’. After killin’ it again – just now.”
“Oh.” She moved out of the entrance to the sleeping cave.
“Gotta tell ya, Jeannie, I expected more surprise fer that bit o’ news.” He settled down near the fur, moving it a little farther away from their fire pit.
She sat on the other side of the fire. “Sorry. I forgot to tell you something I learned from Reece and Andy while you were feral before, a while back.”
“Catch me up.”
“The reason they all thought you couldn’t kill a bear-dog – Andy saw two of them clash when they both charged him at once. He dove for the snow and rolled out of the way, but one of them killed the other. The surviving one seemed to miss him and chased his companions in another direction. The big man found Andy again later and they dragged the bear-dog corpse to the cavern mouth so they could get the fur and meat. Then the monster just woke up and attacked them. They ran into the caves to get away from it, but it nearly killed them both.”
“Might help if we knew why they don’t like tha caverns.”
“I’m sleeping better knowing that.” Jean smiled.
“Yeah, but I think it’s got t’ do with Hook, if she made ‘em. She’s afraid t’ be underground, or doesn’t want ‘em in here fer ‘nother reason. One more thing – I don’t think tha bear-dogs are eatin’ elk, or any other game.”
“They ignored tha elk herd. Not in an ‘I’m not hungry so ya don’t interest me’ way, neither. They didn’t seem t’ see ‘em, like only I could.”
“Maybe Hook has them eating people?”
“Naw, it don’t wash. They probly don’t eat at all. There’s no scent marks anywhere, no scat. They just kill, ‘cept when they immobilized tha woman. If tha bear-dogs are parts o’ Hook, why does she need t’ make ‘em catch someone?”
Jean held herself and shuddered. “I’m not sure I want to know.”
Logan watched her, ready to gauge her response. “Bet Reece knows.”
“There’s no point in going back down now until the others are able to tell us something. I’ll check on them in a bit.” Probably to deter him from applying thumb-screws to Waldo right away, Jean added, “We need the alpha wolf to go hunting again. The meat runs out faster when you have a pack to feed.”
Sighing, he nodded and tossed his cigar case next to one of the candles. “While yer waitin’, could ya give this a scrape with yer TK? I’ll brain goo it when I get back with supper. Tha bastard can’t come back t’ life if he’s tanned.”
Yer afraid I’ll rough Reece up, I guess, he thought, unconcerned if she picked it up or not. Aloud, he said, “We can ask nice an’ hope fer tha truth just so long, Red, but that man knows somethin’ he ain’t shared yet. In a place like this, what ya dunno can kill ya an’ probly will.” Logan got up then and went out to hunt without another word, but he didn’t assume Jean’s silence implied agreement. If she can’t get Reece t’ confess all he knows peaceably, it’ll be tha ol’ Canucklehead’s turn. Odds are, he’d rather deal with tha lady.
Jean stared down at the tanned leather that covered the woman’s body. Who were you? Just a tourist who lost her way? “Did you know her?” she asked Andy.
“No.” The park ranger looked away from the body.
“How about you?” she addressed the other two recovered cavemen. Reece quietly watched them all.
“Don’t know who she is,” the big man replied, sullen and evasive.
“No, I’m sorry,” the other man added.
Jean slipped a subtle probe into their minds. “So – do you know who you are?”
The man sitting next to Andy answered first. “George Patterson. I came to see the Mammoth Cave on vacation. I’m from Rhode Island.”
When Jean turned to the big man, he frowned, glaring up at her. “From Bowlin’ Green. Travis Kendall.”
Patterson checked out fine: normal guy on a road trip, worried about his young wife who had been traveling with him. Kendall’s mind resisted the probe, though he didn’t seem consciously aware of it – yet. She pressed it further until it hit a block she’d have to announce her presence to break.
A man to watch, feral or not, she thought. His mind is full of anger, mostly at women. He doesn’t know how I beat him, but he knows I did and he’s pretty ticked about it. Facing Reece, she sat beside him on his shelf, holding her antler torch to one side. “Did she lose too much blood?”
“I don’t think so. She seemed about to revive, and then she went into a fit, possibly epileptic. I tried restraining her, but … she died. I don’t know much about epilepsy, I’m afraid. Of course, it could have been a heart attack.”
Watching him a moment, she looked back down at the covered form on the cave floor. The other men were sitting back away from it, a study of the stages of shock showing on their faces.
I want to believe you, Reece, but I don’t. You shield your mind with skill, well enough to make me think a telepath has taught you a few tricks of the trade. I can’t tell what or why yet, but I know you’re hiding something, and I know you’re lying to me about something, too. How this woman died? Or maybe you’re lying about knowing who she is? Jean rose and addressed them all. “Stay down here and keep your brains. Wolverine and I will bring you food. Reece, show them how to get water. I’ll bring your furs down, too. We need to make a plan, and soon. Once Wolverine recovers again, we’ll come down and discuss options.”
“Yes, and we can bury this poor soul,” Reece said.
“Don’t get too industrious. We mean to get out of here and when we do, we’ll have to bring the police to find her.”
“A cairn, then – to protect the body; I know a cave that will be suitable.”
She nodded. “I’ll be back soon.”
As Jean entered the tunnels on her way to fetch furs for them, she turned the mystery of the woman’s capture by bear-dogs, and her death, over and over in her mind.
Somewhere above, Logan was back from his hunt. She had heard him howl once and assumed he would find her as he had before. So far, she didn’t hear him coming, but she’d learned that didn’t mean he wasn’t.
Abruptly, she did hear someone approaching with stealth behind her. She spun and lashed out with her TK, freezing the man Kendall in place. His surprise was captured on his face until she adjusted her power to allow him the use of his head and tongue.
“Was coming to help,” he spluttered. “Woman alone … might need help.”
“Or might be vulnerable? Think again, Mr. Kendall.”
“Not out to hurt you, girl.”
“‘Hurt’ can be defined creatively by some people. You may not remember, but you tried to make me your new toy before, after the woman left the caves, and I’m betting she wouldn’t have appreciated your attentions, either.”
“Don’t remember it. You got power, you’re a mutie – can’t take a mutie on. Just meant to help.”
Jean frowned. “We prefer to be called mutants. ‘Mutie’ is a slur, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“My people say mutie, that’s all – never had another name for it. Don’t mean no harm.”
“Remind me not to visit. I’m going to let you go and you can help fetch and carry, but if you try anything, I’ll stick you to the floor again. After that, your options get thinner. Got it?”
She allowed him to walk in front of her and gather his furs and anything else he wanted from their caves himself. He must have gotten used to the tunnels, for he often walked outside the reach of her torchlight.
Deciding not to look for Logan while she was with his feral side’s former rival, she directed the man back down to Reece, following after him at a distance.
Her probes were at work the entire time she allowed him to assist with moving the housewares. No longer caring if he detected the intrusion, she broke through three mental blocks in quick succession, finding darker and more unpleasant definitions behind each one for words like hurt and help.
A rapist and killer, perfect – this one lives, while that poor woman dies.
Ahead of her, he disappeared into the Rotunda. Jean entered warily, but didn’t immediately see him.
“No games, Kendall. Show yourself, now.” Taking another few steps, her foot struck something and she tripped. Stumbling, she moved her antler torch to find the man lying stretched out on the floor, eyes closed. “What the hell?” She prodded his side with her boot toe. “Get up, Mr. Kendall. You’re conscious; I can sense your mind.”
He moved fast, grabbing her ankles and pitching her onto her back. The breath was knocked out of her when she hit and his full weight pressed her down a second later. The torch had flown from her hand, but its fire was still lit.
The man’s hands descended, one to her mouth and the other to her throat. Before he could choke or silence her, she assaulted him with her TK, freezing him instantly. His body stiffened in the posture of a man intent on murder. The tendons of his thick neck stood out, the hands halted, though still in the position of attempting to throttle and quiet her.
Rage boiled in her as she forced his hand away from her mouth. “Son of a bitch!” Adrenaline pumping, she glared up at him. “If we pass a drop-off full of stalagmites, you’d better pray I remember I’m civilized.”
He didn’t answer because she hadn’t allowed him to. She began to lift him off of her with her TK, cursing under her breath.
A roar of rage, almost in her ear, stiffened her in shock and fear as effectively as she had bound the man. When his body was struck by another, tumbling away across the floor, Jean screamed.
She struggled to her knees, lashing her telekinesis out at the Wolverine. “No! He’s –”
Seconds before she could snag his strength and assert control, she saw his fangs flash in the torchlight as they tore out the helpless man’s throat.
He felt her power and turned, sensing an attack, and snarled viciously at her. Horrified, she retracted her TK into a shield between them.
Terror and guilt ripped through her in sobs, nausea threatening at the sight of the man called Kendall, dead in an instant while held frozen by her telekinesis. Sinking over her knees, holding herself tightly, she closed her eyes, a groan escaping her lips.
A snarl alerted her and her head snapped up to look at Wolverine. He was moving forward in a feral crouch, snarling at something behind her.
“Gentlemen, keep very still,” Reece’s voice whispered. “It seems we’ve found the cause of the disturbance.”
Jean almost fell to her side when she whipped around to face them. Catching herself on her hands, she cried out, “Get out of here, now!”
“Don’t move!” Reece warned them. Andy and George stopped. “We can’t run, Ms. Phoenix. He would pursue and kill us.”
Jean watched Wolverine creep closer to them. The grace he possessed while moving a humanoid body like a canine predator made her shudder. He seemed more at ease in his body now than he ever did walking upright like a man.
She could hold him, but it had made him more savage a moment ago. “I can shield you – back up into the tunnel; I can stop him from reaching you.”
“I dealt with predators before I turned my work to the study of mutants, my dear, and this problem is one that will repeat itself as long as we remain here. We must convince this fellow he’s the alpha of our little pack, and it will require a show of submission after Mr. Kendall broke ranks and challenged his right to his mate.” As Reece spoke, he knelt and to Jean’s shock, he lay down on his back before the advancing mutant. “Andy, George – do what I do; it will be all right.”
“You’re crazy,” George answered, his voice cracking with fear. “It’ll kill us!”
Reece closed his eyes and turned his head away, lifting his chin to the feral beast. His voice came in a careful whisper. “If you don’t do this – yes, he will kill you.”
Andy had already begun to obey. When he saw that, George nervously copied them.
“Do not look at him,” Reece whispered as Wolverine came up to him, sniffing. “Give him your throat and look away. He will grasp it in his teeth and release you.”
“Crazy…” George muttered, but did as he said.
Jean watched helplessly as the beast that was her friend took Reece by the throat. His slight hiss of indrawn breath told her that the fang teeth had pierced skin.
Wolverine released him and moved on to the others. They moaned and trembled, but survived the experience. She heard George murmuring desperate prayers as the beast let him go and turned away.
She startled when he came to her. Staring at him blankly, she realized she’d forgotten to keep her shield in place. Afraid, she almost used his name. Remembering that they weren’t alone, his codename fell from trembling lips. “Wolverine … it’s me, your mate.” When he snarled at her, she gasped. “No – no harm to mate … remember…?”
“Phoenix,” Reece called to her, his tone soft and unthreatening, “you struck out at him with your talents when his dominance had been challenged. You must submit to regain his protection.”
Oh, God … Logan? Logan, please… She sank down to her chest before rolling to her back. Tears fell down her cheeks as her eyes closed and she turned her head away, offering him her throat like an animal. The fangs descended, pierced, and drew blood.
~ ~ ~
“Jean? Jeannie?” His fingers touched her shoulder.
“Don’t!” She flinched away, burying her face in the long stiff elk fur.
His confusion and concern washed over her, spiked with hurt and fear. “Jean … I won’t touch ya but I gotta know – are ya hurt?”
Stifling a sob, she whispered, “No…”
She heard him leave her. Lifting her head, she looked out toward the light of the fire as he built it up again.
When I went outside, she thought privately, and that … that thing changed me, it was strange and thrilling. The freedom of not caring what I did, the release of taking something I couldn’t have but wanted anyway – it was exciting. I’ve been in the caverns since, slowly recovering, as he does.
Wiping at her face, she steeled herself to deal with the fallout of the last few hours. Travis Kendall’s death was largely her fault and the beast was not the same being as the man she called Logan.
I don’t want to do this, any of it. If I can’t escape it … I’d rather be that strange uncaring woman again – callous, unaware of whom she hurts and unconcerned about any of it. As her civilized senses returned, she knew the guilt was coming with them – for the dead man and for her torn and mangled union. Scott would never understand. So he can’t ever know, she thought, her mouth hardening in a frown.
The beast inside was exultant – the rival was dead, the pack and mate, his. Turning away from the memory of it, the man called Logan felt sick.
He didn’t watch Jean emerge from the sleeping cave. Placing the rubbed and rolled bear-dog skin aside to cure, he sat by the fire and stared into it.
“It doesn’t hold the answers,” Jean whispered.
“Neither do I.”
“He was under my power, Logan.”
“Don’t try t’ make this yer fault.” He looked up at her at last. “Tha man was tryin’ t’ murder ya. If ya hadn’t clapped ‘im with yer TK, he coulda done it. Don’t say ya shoulda seen me comin’, neither. In that state, Chuck couldn’t detect me in time an’ ya know it.”
“But if –”
“No, Jeannie. No. Ask Magneto. I had ‘is guts opened up before Chuck even knew I was goin’ t’ strike. That level o’ rage, tha animal mind – it’s too slippery fer a telepath. Ain’t no thought between desire an’ damage.” He took a deep breath, released it slowly. “What Mags did t’ me after, yankin’ my adamantium outta me while tryin’ t’ hold ‘is entrails in place – that left its mark on tha beast, too. He looks fer that second attack now, tha unseen one – an’ he don’t react well when it comes. Hell, it made ‘im even faster – or did ya forget how I stabbed Mags in Genosha not so long ago, before any o’ ya could blink? Man’s probly still in a wheelchair.”
“You can’t blame yourself for Kendall. You were…”
She drifted off, her face paling slightly at the images that might never leave her mind when she looked at him. He knew the expression well.
He’d seen it once on Mariko Yashida’s face, after she had witnessed him murdering dozens of warriors of the Hand in a red haze of brutal rage. It was an expression that haunted his nightmares, though the face that displayed it might morph and change into others that had shared the horror of it.
“I’m sorry that I… I’m just sorry, Jeannie.”
He was surprised when she sat beside him and startled when her hands touched his face, her thumbs stroking his sideburns.
“We should try to just forget it, worry about it when we get out of here – but first, we have a cairn to build.” She sighed. “The cavewoman is dead, too. Reece claims it was either a seizure or a heart attack, but he’s not telling me the whole truth. I’d like you to take a look at her, see what you think.”
Logan nodded listlessly. He knew her too well, knew the brave face she was putting on her fear – her fear of him.
Her thought slipped into his mind gently. The beast frightens me, yes – but not you. Leaning close, she kissed his forehead.
“He is me,” he whispered, “an’ sometimes I’m afraid tha line that separates us is gettin’ thinner. I know ya like t’ tell yerself we ain’t tha same, but … fact is, I got no idea which o’ us came first an’ I’m not sure tha man in me is tha dominant side at all.”
“You know, even deep in your feral state, I could link to thoughts and you communicated with me. I was afraid, but – you didn’t hurt me. I’ve been dealing with some things too, aspects of myself I haven’t wanted to face.”
“If ya wanna talk ‘bout it…?”
“Not really, and we don’t have time just now.” Jean got up and held her hand out to him. “Aren’t we lucky we have a mystery to distract us?” When he rose, he took her hand and kissed it before she turned away. “We need to find out why Reece might lie about the woman’s death, or her identity. One or both is a deep dark secret.”
He knew it was intended to take them off the subject of their changing situation. Having no answers for that either, he took her bait and began to mull the problem of Reece over as a way to keep his sanity from splintering.
~ ~ ~
As the others covered Travis Kendall’s body with stones, Logan uncovered the stones from the leather blanket that hid the former cavewoman’s face. By flickering torchlight, he studied her waxen features.
Crouching down to touch her cheek, he scented the skin of her face and neck, a frown sparking a low involuntary growl.
“What is it?” Jean asked.
He didn’t answer. Rigor mortis had set in, but there was a lot to discover yet. Looking closely at her eyes, the growl returned. They were milky now, but he could still detect the mass of broken blood vessels covering the surface of the eyes. It was a sign he’d seen before – and not a good indication of an innocent death.
Logan’s head lifted before his body straightened, staring at Reece. The anthropologist was placing a final stone over Kendall’s corpse, an expression of regret hanging on his face like a mask.
A snarl of anger ripped from Logan’s throat before he was even aware of it. He fought for control as his instincts tried to kick over civilization and allow the beast to mete out justice.
When he thought he could lay hands on the man without killing him outright, he crossed the cave in three strides, seized Reece by the shirt and one wrist and propelled him, shouting, out and up the tunnel. The others, shocked, followed in a rush.
They emerged into Broadway from Audubon Avenue. Reece babbled, asking for a reason for the man-handling haul to the surface. Jean hurried after, trying to reason with him to let the man go. Andy and George came last. They were bewildered and wanted to help Reece, but they were too afraid of their new leader to interfere.
In the outside world of snow, the sun was setting and twilight had begun. A vicious smile twisted his expression, a wicked gleam lighting his blue eyes.
“Yeah, here it is. Confession time, bub,” his voice grated at his captive’s ear. “Ya know why, too. Spill yer secrets or spill yer guts, I don’t really care which.”
Reece twisted violently in Logan’s grasp, almost fracturing his wrist in the mutant’s iron grip. “No, you don’t understand! I can’t go out there–”
“We all had our turn playin’ Tarzan. Yer not special, are ya?”
“Wolverine, stop it,” Jean cried out, affected by the pinioned man’s terror, no doubt. “There could be a real danger –”
“Yup, an’ here it comes. Hey, Hook, gotta treat fer ya! Step up, ya hell bitch – come an’ get it!”
Jean came forward to clutch at his shoulders as they were abruptly surrounded by the interwoven howls and snarls of a pack of bear-dogs.
They came out of the thin freezing air like gray and black wraiths, gibbering their rage, and evincing a cold hunger that Logan could scent and he knew Jean could feel. The monsters crept closer in a knot, and they weren’t alone.
“Oh my God,” Jean whispered at his ear. “She’s there – I can’t see her, but she’s there.”
“This is tha bait that gets results, Red. Surprise, surprise: Hook wants Reece, an’ pretty bad, too.” He shook the man like a ragdoll. “Whattaya say, Waldo? Maybe if we hand ya over, she’ll break tha spell, huh? Let us go?”
“No! She’ll kill you all –”
“Is that a fact?” Logan took another step closer to the edge of the graying snow as the sun failed. “I’m not so sure. Thinks she’s a goddess, right? We give ‘er a sacrifice, we appease tha wrath. Ain’t that how it works?”
Jean backed away from them. “Wolverine … stop it. I can feel her…” Her voice rose in growing panic. “Damn you, stop it! Pull him back!” She turned to the other men. “Run – get down deep, fast!”
They obeyed her without question, but Logan not only stood his ground, he advanced. His bare feet hit the snow, a snarl on his lips as he held the man’s struggling body in front of him.
Buffeted by an abrupt and violent wind, he narrowed his eyes as he felt the unseen presence lunge for them. With snapping needle teeth, one or two of the bear-dogs stepped onto the frozen stone, their talons scoring it with a high-pitched scraping noise.
Reece screamed. Logan shook him again. “Why does she want ya?” he shouted over the wind. “Why! Tell me, or damn yer eyes, she’ll have ya!”
A burst of telekinetic power struck and enveloped them, hauling them back into the cavern mouth.
Logan didn’t fight it. He watched the monsters snap and roar, restrained by their mistress from entering the caves. His back struck a wall next to the entrance of the Audubon tunnel, none too gently: Phoenix was pissed.
With a growl of disgust, he threw Reece down at his feet the instant Jean released them. The man began to crawl into the tunnel, but Logan put a foot down on his back and flattened him onto his belly.
Outside, their enemies still raged and howled. Had Hook retreated? He didn’t think so, but she was keeping the animals out. Or is she keepin’ ‘em away from Reece? She wants ‘im, but undamaged? Instinct made him aware of another possible threat in the form of an outraged redhead. Deal with Jean first, bub – she knows where ya sleep.
“What the hell were you doing?” Hands fisted, she crackled with barely-controlled power. “You almost got him killed! Aren’t two dead people enough?”
“Hear me out, Red,” he began, but she interrupted him.
“You were mindlessly feral with Kendall, but there’s no excuse for –”
“Oh, yeah, I gotta excuse,” he flared. “Tha blood vessels in that woman’s eyes were a broken mess – a sure sign o’ suffocation. Reece killed ‘er – before she could wake up, before she could talk, or remember who she was … but ‘is scent was on tha marks at ‘er throat. Tha rest o’ tha Wild Bunch hadn’t recovered ‘nuff yet t’ notice.” Looking down at his captive, he added, “Right, Reece? Just too temptin’, I guess.” His fierce eyes met hers again. “That good ‘nuff fer ya?”
Her hands flew to her mouth as she looked away from him to stare down at Reece. “But … why?”
“That’s what I aim t’ find out.”
He reached down and hauled the man to the wall, allowing him to slump against it, his legs curled in front of him, arms rising to cover his head. His body trembled with terror.
Logan crouched beside him. “Look at me,” he said, his tone a threat. Pinning the man with a fierce glare, he spoke with a soft and cold voice. “Ya gotta choice, Reece. Confess – while tha lady scans yer mind fer fibs. If ya don’t, I’ll toss ya outside this cave an’ we’ll see how fast ya can get back in t’ try tha first option again.”